As a multi-million selling recording artist with an equally impressive Olivier Award winning acting career, Barbara Dickson OBE has firmly established herself as one of the most enduring and popular artistes in Britain today.
Born in Dunfermline, Scotland, Barbara’s love of music was evident from an early age – she began studying piano at the age of five and by twelve had also taken up the guitar. She developed an interest in folk music whilst at school which led to floor spots singing at her local folk club. After relocating to Edinburgh, she went on to combine a day job in the Civil Service whilst steadily pursuing her first love, music, in local pubs and clubs. The watershed moment came in 1968 when, after being refused leave from her job for an overseas singing engagement, Barbara resigned, determined to pursue a career for herself in the burgeoning folk scene of the late ‘60’s.
The next few years saw her gradually ‘paying her dues’ on the Scottish and English folk circuit, steadily building a reputation and working with the likes of Billy Connolly, Gerry Rafferty, Rab Noakes and Archie Fisher. Early folk albums, which she recorded for Trailer and Decca Records, were well received.
Barbara readily admits that she would have been happy to continue her life as a travelling folk musician, but a meeting with an old friend, musician and playwright Willy Russell, in Liverpool in the early 70s was to change the course of her career completely.
Willy offered Barbara the role of the musician/ singer in his 1974 Beatles’ musical ‘John, Paul, George, Ringo… and Bert’, staged at Liverpool’s Everyman Theatre. She was on stage throughout the entire performance singing the songs of the alongside a cast which included Antony Sher, Bernard Hill and Trevor Eve. The show was a huge success and after a sell-out Liverpool season it transferred to London’s West End. After seeing Barbara’s performance in the show, impresario Robert Stigwood, the head of RSO Records, signed her to his label.
Her first hit single, ‘Answer Me’, was released early in 1976 and a guest residency on the BBC’s hugely successful ‘The Two Ronnies’ show later that year brought Barbara into the homes of more than 15 million viewers on Saturday evenings.
‘Another Suitcase in Another Hall’, her second hit, followed in 1977 when Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber invited Barbara to sing on the original cast recording of their new musical ‘Evita’.
A move to the CBS (now Sony) record label brought Barbara further hit singles including ‘Caravans’ and ‘January, February’ and ‘The Barbara Dickson Album’ in 1980 provided her with her first gold album.
By 1982, regular TV appearances and sold-out tours had cemented her status as one of the UK’s most popular female vocalists. Her ‘All For a Song’ album that year was certified platinum and went on to spend almost a year on the album chart.
A return to the theatre in Willy Russell’s new musical, ‘Blood Brothers,’ in 1983 was to mark Barbara’s debut as a stage actress. As with ‘John Paul George Ringo… and Bert’ nine years previously, the show transferred from Liverpool to London and in the process earned her the ‘Best Actress in a Musical’ award from the Society of West End Theatres.
In 1985 Barbara’s single ‘I Know Him So Well,’ recorded with Elaine Paige and taken from the musical ‘Chess’, was released. It reached Number One in the UK and went on to become a Top Ten hit around the world, eventually selling over 900,000 copies. Further hits followed, but in the early 1990’s Barbara began to move away from pop and back towards her roots in folk and acoustic music.
Her 1992 collection of Bob Dylan songs, ‘Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right,’ was followed by the albums ‘Parcel of Rogues’ and ‘Dark End of the Street’, which combined traditional music with tracks by some of Barbara’s favourite songwriters, including Randy Newman, Sandy Denny and Jackson Browne.
The ‘90’s also saw Barbara beginning to diversify more into acting, with major roles on TV including ‘Taggart’, Kay Mellor’s ‘Band of Gold’ and ‘The Missing Postman’. On stage, ‘The Seven Ages of Woman’ won Barbara the 1997 Liverpool Echo ‘Best Actress in Theatre’ Award and in 2000 she won her second Olivier award for her role as the infamous 1960’s pools winner, Viv Nicholson, in the musical ‘Spend Spend Spend’.
In 2004 Barbara released her first studio album for nine years, ‘Full Circle’, produced and arranged by Troy Donockley. It was widely acclaimed as a long-awaited return to her musical roots, with the Daily Telegraph noting: “it is no exaggeration to describe Barbara as a great singer. She stood out a mile among the Scottish folk singers of her generation, and she has consistently shown her class when performing for a wider public. This is Dickson at her most engaging.”
In 2006 Barbara was commissioned by Universal Music to record ‘Nothing’s Gonna Change My World’, an album of the songs of The Beatles.
Having established a successful working partnership with Troy Donockley and delighted with the new musical direction that ‘Full Circle’ had provided her, Barbara released a follow-up set, ‘Time And Tide,’ in 2008. This was accompanied by the release of ‘Into The Light’, her first live DVD, mixing favourites from the album with many of her best-loved hits.
Barbara’s autobiography, ‘A Shirt Box Full of Songs,’ was published in 2009. More recently she has presented several radio series for BBC Radio Scotland, exploring folk and roots music and has provided music for two films by the award-winning director Tony Palmer.
Barbara’s album, ‘Words Unspoken,’ was released in 2011 and furthered her desire to explore the music of the British Isles, presenting a selection of favourites from her ‘shirt box’ that she has always wanted to record. Just as the CD was released, Barbara was invited to perform at, and also to co-present, the prestigious BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards in London alongside Mike Harding.
During 2012 Barbara took a break from touring, but was busier than ever with performances at Celtic Connections and at several festivals throughout the UK, as a duo, alongside her long-term keyboard player Nick Holland.
Barbara was bestowed with a Doctorate of Music from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in July 2012, and was also honoured with ‘The Pride of Scotland Award’ at The Scottish Music Awards. At the end of the year, BBC Alba screened a documentary on Barbara’s career, with guests including Tim Rice, Willy Russell and Billy Connolly.
The start of 2013 saw the release of ‘B4 Seventy-Four – The Folkclub Tapes,’ a two-disc CD set of early live recordings of Barbara’s from the 60’s and early 70’s. Reviewing the release, ‘The Daily Express’ noted:
“One of its charms is that it doesn’t have the benefit of hindsight meaning some of the recordings are very real. The other is Barbara herself, an enduringly lovely part of folk and pop-lore.”
During 2013, Barbara is set to record a new studio album featuring a collection of songs by her late friend, the songwriter Gerry Rafferty, who died in 2011. The release of the CD this autumn will coincide with Barbara’s first UK concert for almost three years.
Barbara currently lives in Lincolnshire with her husband of 29 years, Oliver Cookson, and a floating population of three sons, Colm, Gabriel and Archie.
She was awarded an OBE from Her Majesty The Queen in 2002 for Services to Music and Drama.
Yet never one to look back, and despite the successes of her career, ask her if she still has any ambitions left and she laughs: “Oh, loads! I’d like to sing a duet with James Taylor. I’d like to play again in Australia. I’d like to appear in the US and Canada. I could go on and on! Who knows if any of them will happen? However musically I am happier than I have ever been. I always look to the future and it’s why I always roll my eyes when interviewers ask me about the highlight of my career. I truly believe that is yet to come!”